No one truly believes, despite the hysteria in the streets, that the world of tranquil certainties we were born into is about to be extinguished.
J. M. Coetzee, ‘Waiting for the Barbarians’
An Egyptian commentator on Sky News was asked to explain why the revolution had happened. Of crucial importance, he said, was the youth element: a generation of young, well-educated, tech-savvy graduates who couldn’t find adequate employment. This is in the context of a broader economic depression that saw the cost of living rise and jobs lost. He then spoke about the inspiration of the Tunisian people ousting the autocrat Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali, and the thirty year reign of Hosni Mubarak.
Evidently the immensity of such events cannot be explained in these terms. A people’s revolution breaks all interpretation. Such events require more than the ‘right conditions’. At a time when ideas of universality are considered archaic (romantic at best, terroristic at worst) the solidarity we all felt with the crowds in Tahrir Square, and now with those all over North Africa and the Middle East, came from nowhere and broke all our predictions about the ‘end of history’.
In the aftermath it is easy to imagine that it was bound to happen, that the people in these countries were simmering under the surface waiting for their chance. It is easy to think that in Egypt, Bahrain, Libya, Tunisia, that things must be different if people are willing to put their bodies in front of rubber bullets, to fill the streets for days and days because of a conviction. But it was just as much of a shock to those people as it was for us who watched. In one moment a reality in which nothing was possible, in the next a splintering, a visible and unequivocal rupture between the people and the powerful. All of a sudden law-abiding, decent, hard working people poured through the gap, not knowing what the consequence would be but suddenly awakened to the possibility of their power. As one Egyptian, an electrical engineer, said: “I’ve never had any love for Mubarak or his system before, but my mind- like everyone else’s- has always been sealed from the possibility of change. And honestly, when I began chanting for my rights and the government security forces fired tear gas at me, the seal was broken forever.”
With these revolutions we witness the re-appearance of history. History understood as more than the production and reproduction of life (the ‘natural’ history we are destined for under the ideologies of sustainability and the market). History understood as the momentary and decisive appearance of the people. The people are in this sense not an unthinking mob, a ‘force of nature’, but a thinking, determined collective who understand the situation (of their exclusion) and make a decision to fight beyond it. Such a moment requires more than the overcoming of the military or the police, it requires the defeat of a cynicism and fear that says such things are impossible.
But if history appeared something must have been absent. This absence was the absence of the people, the absence of democracy: freedom of speech, human rights, free elections; fairness, equality, justice. These regimes are the source and site of the people’s frustrations. They give a specific point to the anger and enthusiasm, a unifying claim, as witnessed in the little girl of five or six heard chanting: “al-shaʿb yurīd isqāṭ al-raʾīs” (‘The People Want the Fall of the President’). Yet for decades these governments have been sanctioned by referendums and Western leaders (so ready now to support ‘democracy’ when the moment arises). The absence of Western ‘democratic procedures’ does not explain why the people appeared in such numbers in the street, in the same way that the appearance of the people was not a demand for better ‘democratic procedures’.
The movement in Tunisia began when the twenty-six-year-old Mohamed Bouazizi set himself on fire in protest at his treatment. This desperation moved people to first come into the streets, their beatings and repression moved more people and so on. The fire begun by petrol caused a furnace that is still burning. Bouazizi had a university degree but couldn’t find work. He was living in a provincial town, Sidi Bouzid, earning money by selling fruit and vegetables in the street without a licence. His stall was confiscated, even though everyone sold without official permission. When he went to protest at the Magistrates Office he was told to go away. He was slapped and spat on. When he demanded that the Magistrate speak with him in person, be a witness to a miscarriage of justice, the Magistrate refused. It was the refusal of the Magistrate to see him that provoked Bouazizi to his actions. It was not just the persecution by police, the loss of livelihood, the shame of being beaten. These are everyday realities for millions of people. They are not the cause of protest.
While the autocratic regimes that fall day after day in the Arab world and beyond share similar histories and bad ‘humans rights records’ this is not the reason why the people are standing up. It is not a late eruption of what happened in Eastern Europe in the late 1980s; the common refrain of those who cling to an understanding of history as development, progress, and not the sporadic appearance of something that cuts across the familiar narrative, breaks out of the predictable and the chronological.
It is not because the people are so downtrodden, so victimised, so poor and abused that they are able to stand up against their oppressors. As in the case of Bouazizi it was not what was done to him but what was not done to him: the fact of not being treated like an equal, as someone with an existence worth taking into account. The will of the people is exactly this: the realisation and assertion that the the people owe no allegiance or loyalty to anything but itself. The will of the people does not need to be sanctioned or represented by delegates or officials. It does not need to ask for anything because what it asks for is impossible for anyone to give. It is strength not weakness that emboldens the will of the people. The understanding that no amount of procrastination, deviation, nay-saying, excuses can sideline what is universal: the will of the people predicated on the equality of people. As Peter Hallward writes, “[e]very revolutionary sequence applies in practice a principle that every counter-revolutionary theory seeks to deny or disguise: there is indeed no deeper source of legitimacy than the active will of the people.
The deaths of so many, and the many more that were hurt, the elation shown by the spontaneous dancing and singing on the 11th February in the heart of Cairo, represent the strength of the people in their decision to act. Hopefully they will have the same strength in the difficult months and years ahead. The revolts in the Middle East and North Africa represent a collective recognition of a self-evident truth: if things are to change the people must re-assert themselves. This renewed sense of agency was inconceivable just the day before. Rather than being a series of events limited to a geographical, historical, cultural context we should recognise this new historical sequence for what it is: a revival of the universal idea of the people
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